It wasn’t hard to imagine that when a newspaper such as the Boston Globe called for a return to civics education in schools it wouldn’t look like the classes of previous generations.
“Over the past month, students at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., have captured the nation’s attention with their courage, determination and eloquence in their campaign against gun violence,” the piece, by Jessica Lander, began in a column.
“How did they learn how to make such an impact? The students credited in part their government teacher and their school curriculum. Since 2010, Florida has required that its public schools teach civics.”
Lander went on to express support for a proposal in the Massachusetts legislature that state schools there be required to teach not just civics but “student-led civics projects” – along with money to train teachers to teach this new kind of civics.
The students at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School seemed in need of a lesson in basic civics.
They knew how to show up at protests and skip school, but they evinced little knowledge of the lawmaking process at the state and federal levels.
They called out members of Congress for relatively small contributions from the National Rifle Association, criticized Washington for not taking immediate action and advocated a series of steps that have no chance of happening in Washington.
But that stuff is old and boring, wrote Lander, a teacher and writer in the Boston area.
“Traditionally, civics education has focused on teaching basic facts about government,” Lander wrote. “Such knowledge is certainly necessary. But it is not enough. To cultivate actively engaged citizens, we need to provide students with real-world opportunities to develop and practice civics skills.”
She provided two examples of students taking action to help their communities that did not seem to have much to do with civics. In 2006, she wrote, students in a science class in Springfield, Mass., tested the water in a local pond that had been closed to the public, found it safe, and convinced the city, because of those findings, to open the pond for swimming.
In the other, students at a Boston middle school found used needles on their playground – an unfortunate consequence of having a needle exchange program located close to campus. It convinced the city to place needle-safe barrels at the edges of the school grounds, Lander wrote.
She then provided a roadmap to where these new civics courses might lead – one from her own classroom.
“Last spring my students, upset by gun violence in their community, launched a collaboration with the police department, health department, sheriff’s office and more than 30 houses of faith, nonprofits and local businesses to run a gun buyback program, which collected 39 unwanted guns in exchange for grocery gift cards.”
She does not say how the students became interested in this particular issue but did take time to point out they “insisted to me that they must run the gun buyback again next year.”
The proposed law, Lander says, does not require standalone civics classes that perhaps would let students understand their Second Amendment rights and the value of those rights in terms of the nation today.
Instead, this “activist civics” that has been proposed. “allows civics to be embedded as an integral part of science, English history math or art curriculums.”
When only 25 percent of adult Americans know how to change a law, just 36 percent can name the three branches of government and 61 percent of college students believe “hate speech” is not protected by the First Amendment, perhaps it’s not yet time for activist-based civics but for familiarizing Americans with the basic premises on which its governments operate.